Set in the rural village of Thrush Green, this book is the latest in a series surrounding familiar characters. There is the feisty Ella Bembridge, who is finally having to admit that old age is creeping up as her eyesight fails. Friends such as Dimity and Charles Henstock are concerned about her, but she refuses to accept any help. Albert Piggott has decided it's time to retire now that his wife, Nelly, is a successful cafe owner and can afford to take care of him! And relative newcomer Phil Hurst and her husband are arranging the local nativity play, despite a number of set-backs. Will everything be in place for Christmas? And will independent Ella make a decision about her future?
All these characters are much loved by fans of this series of books and the publishing of another book by this author came as a great, but delightful, surprise ten years after the last one. It should be noted, however, that although the ideas are the author's, the actual writing was done by her long-time editor, Jenny Dereham. Miss Read professes to be more than happy with the outcome and I have to admit that I wouldn't have known if I hadn't read the foreward.
Most of the characters are middle-aged or older, probably not surprising as the author herself is getting on in years, but there are a couple of teenagers that have a role in the book, which proves that the author (or her editor) is trying to update the books a little, although there is still little mention of modern gadgets. For me, that is not important. Such is the charm of these books, that I have fallen in love with them over the years, and old-fashioned or not, there was not much chance of me not loving this one.
Each of the characters is vibrantly described, even though fans of the series will already be very familiar with them, so those that are new to the books will have no difficulty in following what is going on. Ella Bembrige is probably the main character here. She is a brusque, but kind, elderly woman who has always lived alone and loves crafts, so the sudden problems with her eyesight are very difficult to deal with. Such is the beauty of the way that she is portrayed that I found myself devastated along with her - her pain was my pain and I shed more than a few tears along the way.
The other characters are equally well described. There are no high fliers in Thrush Green; simply people that are happy with their way of life and seek gladness from the small things that bless them. Yet, each of them have their little quirks - Edward Young, for example, is maddeningly anal about tacky Christmas decorations; Albert Piggott is workshy and obnoxious; his wife, Nelly, is hardworking and sharp-tongued; Dotty Harmer is completely dotty, but charming with it; and Harold Shoosmith is slightly smug and snobby. However, all these different personalities work well together to create a magnificent canvas on which to base the stories of their lives.
As any fan of Miss Read, a retired schoolteacher, will expect, there is nothing much in the way of a storyline. Instead, it is a gentle, diary-like story of the comings and goings of the village over the Christmas holidays. Nevertheless, it is utterly charming. There are a few unhappy threads, such as Ella's eyesight and some new, but very obnoxious, neighbours, but all these threads work out for the best in the end. Most importantly, good begets good and evil begets evil. There is a strong sense of religion in the book, and the local church plays an important role, but it is so gently presented that it would be hard for anyone non-religious (like me) to take offence.
The one thing that I found slightly annoying about the book was the constant back stories and explanations. I know the series very well and really didn't need reminding how characters came to exist or their past history - for me, it took up space that could have been saved for new information. However, I do appreciate that anyone who hasn't read the books before will need this explanation. I am also sure that older people or those with poor memories will appreciate the reminders. This is really the only thing about the book that suggested it was not Miss Read herself writing.
The writing is what makes these books for me. It is incredibly simple, yet educated at the same time without ever being pretentious, just like Miss Read's former books. The author tells us what we need to know without any intricate descriptions - but they aren't needed because the visions she conjures up are just right. The atmosphere is exactly as it should be and when I lived abroad, I loved reading Miss Read's work just for a sense of Englishness - because that is what these books (and this one is no exception) have in spades. Set in the Cotswolds, there is a real sense of village mentality, but despite the odd bit of interfering common to village life, it is largely a positive thing.
I really enjoyed this book. It was particularly welcome because I thought that the series had ended with the last book and it was great to see the next steps in the lives of Thrush Green's inhabitants. For newcomers to the series, although it will be possible to work out what is going on, I would recommend starting earlier in the series, just to have full benefit of the characters. Other than that, recommended to anyone (probably almost exclusively female) who likes gentle English humour and outlooks.
The book is available from play.com for £9.99 (for the hardback version - the paperback version is not yet out). Published by Orion Publishing, it has 320 pages. ISBN 9781409101598
This review was first published by me on thebookbag.co.uk.